Persecution trends in 1997
Survey of persecution against Christians throughout the world from Compass Direct
As we scan the secular news bulletins in the coming year, we ought to watch what is happening to the church.
When Filipino pastor, Severino Bagtasos, was murdered in his church by a Muslim fanatic during a Sunday worship service, his family and congregation did not rush to announce a trend was developing in the southern Philippines. They simply hurt, their mourning mixed with fear that it could happen to someone else they love.
When two Chinese Christians in Shanghai were visited by the police, who threatened: 'We will shoot you if you keep doing this work!', they did not write a book on the increasing pressure on house churches in China to register with the government. They simply said: 'We have rededicated our lives to Christ. We will do everything we can for Jesus.'
It is important, however, to recognise the general patterns and trends related to persecution so that our efforts to bring strength and encouragement to the persecuted church will be strategic and effective.
Muslim extremist influences
Most Christians (not to mention most of the Western world) were abruptly awakened to the power of Muslim extremism when the ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran in 1979. The church in Iran has since come under intense pressure. Four pastors have been murdered during the last three years, including Mohammad Yusef, 34, whose body was discovered hanging from a tree on September 28.
Not content to limit their brand of Islam to Iran alone, Muslim extremism has been exported to other susceptible countries.
Sudan is a prime example. This north African country was declared an Islamic Republic in 1983. The Sudanese government, located in the Arab Muslim north of the country, has attempted to force Islamic law on the primarily Christian and Animist south. The result has been a civil war costing thousands of lives.
Algeria is another very visible example. Even though the Algerian government has tried to maintain a relatively secular state, militant Islamic groups continue to use terrorist tactics in their attempt to destabilise the government and gain control. Christians are often caught in the middle. 19 Catholic clergy have been murdered since 1992.
Turkey became the latest country to move toward a more Islamic form of government when the Islamist Welfare Party, led by Necmettin Erbakan, took control on July 9 last year. Milli, a Welfare Party newspaper, wrote: 'It has been for almost a century that the foes of Islam have governed Turkey. Now a new period begins, the period of the believers ... Now Islam will accelerate its run toward Islam.' Judging by the effects of Islamic-dominated governments in other countries, the changes in Turkey forebode more difficult times ahead for the church.
The hopeful expectation of evangelical freedom after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communist rule in the Soviet Union is now being re-placed by a growing fear of restriction due to dominance by the Orthodox church in various Eastern European countries.
Loyalty to the Orthodox church, with its historic ties to national culture and tradition, is encouraged by Orthodox leaders. Some Orthodox church leaders feel this is their duty to 'protect the sheep' from detrimental influences. Others are clearly more interested in maintaining their power base.
The Russian national Duma (parliament) continues to debate a bill restricting religious freedom by limiting the ability of non-Orthodox groups to operate in the country. Non-traditional religions and foreign missionary organisations seem to be the primary concern of legislators, most of whom are heavily influenced by the Orthodox Church.
In Bulgaria, a Protestant church in Plovdiv was closed, following a heavy harassment campaign by pro-Orthodox media and pro-Orthodox organisations.
Evangelical Christians in Romania have reported that a number of official and unofficial militia-like groups have been set up at the initiative of Orthodox leaders to terrorise religious minorities.
According to the Executive Director of the Romanian Evangelical Alliance, newly organised evangelical churches are particularly targeted. Orthodox groups have been reported to have vandalised churches and harassed evangelical believers, often with the approval of local police and political leaders.
While considerable freedom remains in the former Eastern bloc nations, especially compared to the days of communist rule, the threat of evangelistic activity being curtailed by religious nationalistic movement is a serious one indeed.
Churches in the Middle East
Though not a new trend by any means, it is important for Christians in the West to remember that possibly the greatest threat to church growth in the Middle Eastern and Gulf States is attrition.
Unlike Christians living in communist-dominated areas, whose rulers go to great lengths to prevent believers from leaving their countries, Christians living in Islamic-dominated areas have much more freedom to leave, and escape the pressure. The restrictions on leaving are usually more economic than political. And they are leaving. In Israel, the number of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 27% of the population in 1948, to less than 2% today.
In war-torn south-east Turkey, where the government has been battling Kurdish separatists for more than twelve years, the number of Syrian Orthodox Christians has dwindled from more than 50,000 just fifteen years ago, to less than 2,000 today.
A related problem is the large number of Christians converting to Islam. One leading Middle East pastor estimates that as many as 12,000 Christians a year convert to Islam in Egypt, primarily due to economic reasons. Parents, especially fathers, are often faced with the agonising choice between starving and providing for their family. As a result, many succumb to the lure of jobs, monetary rewards and an easier life, and convert to Islam.
Control in communist world
When Lenin came to power in Russia in 1917 and implemented a Marxist regime, it was believed that religion, or superstition, would simply fade away as the masses learned the 'truth'. Surprisingly, at least to the Marxists, the church did not die, so the attempt was made to kill it.
The terrible atrocities committed by Lenin and Stalin, served only to purify and grow the church, as it went underground. So the next step, since it was obvious the church would not fade away or die, was an attempt to control the church by allowing official churches to open, and imprisoning the leaders of those who refused to co-operate.
The scenario still holds true today in China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea.
In China, a massive, ongoing campaign to force the rapidly growing house churches to officially register has intensified. This is in large part due to the powerful influence Christianity is having on the youth of China.
In response to the headline on an Asian journal: 'God is back', one Party official in Beijing explained: 'If God had the face of a 70 year-old man, we wouldn't care if he was back; but he has the face of millions of 20 year-olds, so we are very worried.'
The Cuban government has also intensified its effort to control the burgeoning house church movement that began in 1992, when Cuba's economic crisis and lack of fuel supplies made it difficult to travel, even to church. Pastors and leaders have been imprisoned, threatened with imprisonment or placed under house arrest if they refuse to close their house churches.
The situation is similar in Vietnam, where more than a dozen church leaders are imprisoned. And the dramatic growth of the church among the tribal groups has brought an intense crackdown.
North Korea continues to hide behind their 'show' churches in the capital of Pyongyang, while ruthlessly oppressing any vestige of real Christianity.
There is little reason to hope for positive change in 1997 as communist rulers, still fearing the major role they perceive the church played in the fall of the Iron Curtain, attempt to solidify their dominance. The historic return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty on July 1 1997 should provide a glimpse of how far the Chinese government will publicly pursue their need for control.
The good news
Christian persecution can have positive consequences for the church as a whole. Look no further than China to see how intense persecution has served to purify, strengthen and grow the church there.
Perhaps a young Chinese believer said it best: 'Persecution makes you spiritually alert.' Negative trends are often the very vehicles God uses to promote an atmosphere where his Spirit can work most effectively. A Christian leader in Iran illustrated this a few years ago: 'The ayatollah Khomeini has been a great gift to the church in Iran. The ayatollah has helped reveal the hopelessness of Islam. Now Iranians are looking for something to hope in. They can find that hope in Christ.'
It is easy for us as Christians in the West, who have likely never suffered even mild persecution for our faith, to rejoice in the positive results of Christian persecution. We must be ever mindful, however, that Christian persecution affects people - people like you and me - our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer physically, emotionally, even spiritually for their faith.
It does not matter whether they live in Iran, Cuba, Indonesia, the southern Philippines or Shanghai. Our freedom must be used to care for them - through our prayers, our faith, our wealth, even our presence. By carefully recognising the general trends that affect the church, we can meet their specific needs more effectively.
As the saying goes: 'It is not easy to spot a trend before the crowd forms.' Unfortunately, a crowd has formed in some very visible ways that can adversely affect the functioning, and even the survival, of the church in the world's more restricted areas.